I have begun work on a white paper about moral marketing.

To that end, I’ll be publishing a handful of short, rough, and unorganized posts exploring aspects of the topic as I work out my thoughts for the paper. My hope is that these posts, edited and organized, will eventually constitute a rough draft of the white paper.

What follows is the first post: A brief musing on marketing’s core purpose.


What’s at their core?

Look at many of the disciplines and you will see the human being at their center. Medicine exists to provide human health. Politics exists to lead humans to flourishing. Religion exists to connect humans to the transcendent. Education exists to help humans grow. Engineering exists to solve the problems, big and small, that humans face. Business exists, regardless of what Drucker argued, to help humans provide for their material needs in ways that are fulfilling.

Of course, one can argue that each one of the disciplines and institutions listed above don’t center on people in their day-to-day execution; that medicine is used to drive profits to giant corporations or that politics is used to subjugate humans across the globe.

These observations may be true, but they do not negate the purpose of things like medicine and politics.

Certainly, these things are abused, perverted even. But, when we distill each one of the above to their essence, we must acquiesce that their intended purpose is to solve human problems and meet human needs.

They often don’t work as intended but their existence is justified by their purpose, not necessarily their application.

And, the fact that we’re often dissatisfied with these disciplines and institutions is because they often fall short of their purpose. The degree to which we are happy or unhappy with a given discipline, like medicine, is the degree that that discipline fulfills its purpose. Even our cynicism over politics can’t obscure our expectation for good, trustworthy leadership.

What about marketing?

Why does marketing exist?

It is in answering this question that we run up against a fundamental flaw in the discipline of marketing. Marketing exists to generate revenue for business.

Marketing exists to make money. Marketing, at its essence, is the discipline of promoting goods and services to potential buyers. It’s that simple.

Sure, you can find fancier, and more generous, definitions if you hunt around, but in the end marketing is all about promoting and selling products and services. Marketing exists to help businesses.

Now, I want to be very careful here. I am not arguing that marketing must be bad because it is helping businesses. Helping businesses is not intrinsically bad. Nor is there anything wrong with promoting goods and services. And, one can easily argue, and I have, that helping businesses thrive can be quite vitreous. After all, businesses are comprised of people who are working together to create material wealth while potentially finding some fulfillment in their work.

In fact, marketing thinkers try to recognize this. Check out the American Marketing Association’s definition of marketing:

Marketing is the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.

From the American Marketing Association’s website: ama.org

You can infer from this that they try to frame marketing in a more positive context. But, even so, it’s hard to break away from marketing’s core reason for being: making money.

Admitting is the first step.

What I am trying to highlight is not that marketing is intrinsically bad, but that marketing starts at a distinct disadvantage because at its core it is a profit-making discipline. It is business focused rather than a problem-solving discipline focused on human flourishing.

Yes, marketing can contribute to human flourishing but it has to work a lot harder than say, medicine, to do so. Medicine can easily get off track, causing all kinds of human misery. But, when it does that we have an easy time pointing out its problems and articulating what good medicine should look like. This is because medicine is supposed to serve humanity.

Marketing is too often shallow, manipulative, dishonest, and sycophantic. But, when confronted by these qualities, we shrug. We just assume that’s the way marketing is.

We know, instinctually, that marketing is not for us, that it’s actually a tool used against us—a tool designed to get us to do something that someone else wants us to do.

Maybe it’s benign and of no great consequence. Maybe it’s the small price we pay to enjoy the fruits of modernism. But, we never feel betrayed by the marketing industry’s multi-billion-dollar efforts to get us to part with our money. Why? Because we know deep down that’s what marketing is supposed to do. It’s marketing’s job to make money and because of this it puts profits over people by default. It need not be the kiss of death but this reality must be taken into account if we are to build a framework for marketing that is moral.